On Elaborate Marriage Proposals

Last updated: 4 Nov, 2014

I just read a story about another huge public marriage proposal. I'm not surprised she said 'yes'... because I think elaborate proposals are coercive and thus unethical. Let's explore why.

Now, to get this out of the way first, a marriage proposal is ideally nothing more than a formality; a ritual to go through once you both already know the answer. But, even so, I'd be concerned that I misunderstood the situation without explicit verbal consent. I don't like assuming I have a yes. If I'm wrong about a yes, that's potentially a huge violation of trust and any standard of decent behavior, very big deal. If I'm wrong about asking, worst case is I come off looking a bit oblivious, no big deal. Always better to be explicit than wrong.

True and full consent can only be granted with both the absence of force and the presence of adversity. By adversity, I mean it must be informed - various viable choices need to be available and understood to the person. I recently talked about that principle. By the absence of force I mean more than just you not pointing a gun to their head, I mean the person must be comfortable giving any answer, free from both external and internal pressures. A weapon or other form of physical violence doesn't need to be present for an answer to be forced.

I'll concede that the ideal absence of pressure may not be possible: we're all, in some ways, pressured. We have our own needs, obligations, and feelings that sometimes influence us in ways we wish they wouldn't. However, that's no reason to add to another person's pressure, and it is absolutely wrong to exploit a person's situation or internal flaws for your own gain.

Let me say that again, as it is very important: it is wrong to exploit a person's situation or flaws for your own gain and doubly wrong to put them in such a situation.

Now that we have the principle down, let's explore how it applies to elaborate marriage proposals. What pressures may be present here?

* The recipient may feel bad saying no after seeing all the trouble you went through.

* The recipient will likely feel a lot of performance pressure by the public crowd expecting to hear the yes answer.

* Indeed, the crowd may verbally or even physically attack her if she says no. This doesn't have to actually happen for the fear of it to influence the answer.

* The recipient may simply not be ready to answer at this time for any number of reasons, not being sure yet, not having fully explored the implications of the question, etc., yet the public proposal leaves no room for debate or recess.

* She may fear retaliation from you for going off script, ranging from anger, disappointment, or a simply termination of the status quo.

* Put yourself in that situation and grow this list.

BTW you might notice there's places where I used a gendered pronoun. Guys, be aware of your male privilege as you ponder the situation.

Bottom line, if I was on the receiving end of an elaborate public proposal, I'm not sure I'd be personally capable of saying 'no', even if I really wanted to.

If I can feel that way, I'm sure other people can too. That's potentially coercive and, especially since marriage is such a major question in a person's life, even a small risk of her answer not being free consent is too much, bringing this beyond just 'I wouldn't do it' into being unethical; I /can't/ do it.

This principle of free consent applies to virtually any situation.